Three RJI Research Scholars spent the past year studying the effectiveness and sustainability of long-form digital journalism. This is the second in a five-part series based on 53 interviews with millennials to gauge this audience’s reception to long-form journalism delivered on mobile platforms.


Previous studies have found that millennials are readers. Our study confirms that finding, and delves further into what they expect from reading. Cumulatively, in three out of the four projects tested in the eye-tracking study, story text — text in the main story or sidebar stories — attracted the largest number of fixations from all participants.

In the entire eye-tracking study, the percentage of total fixation time spent on story text ranged from 52 percent to 25 percent.

Write and visualize to enhance understanding

In post-eye-tracking interviews, participants said that if they read the text, they did so to understand the story. “I guess I’m more interested in the facts than the other showy stuff,” one said. Overall, eye-tracking participants said story text served a purpose of providing information and clarity on the subjects being covered in the story projects.

Still, bigger-sized text, such as headlines and pull quotes, were deemed easier to read and more appealing than large blocks of smaller text. Participants reported liking text that was clear, brief and effectively integrated with images and graphics. By “effectively integrated,” we mean that photographs, infographics, interactive games and other multimedia elements were not merely tacked onto the text. Those elements fit into the text both contextually and visually. The words and images complemented one another, and they appeared to be telling one story, with images adding additional informational (as with infographics), emotional dimensions (as with photos and video) or experiential dimensions (as with games) to the text. As University of California, Berkeley journalism professor Jeremy Rue wrote of “Snow Fall,” “all of these components together create a more immersive experience for the viewer, like that found in traditional media like documentaries or long-form narratives.”

Several participants involved in paper prototyping suggested using bullet points and visuals to combat the physical limitations of reading on cellphones. One explained how they used visuals to express what the text said in the original piece, making the information easier to consume on the cellphone. “I think we transformed the text into more visuals,” one participant said, and continued:

“So we tried to basically say what the text was saying, but in visual form. Because in our minds it was more like OK, this is a phone. People don’t really want to scroll through a bunch of text. … If you put that entire story in a phone-type of scope, you’re going to be scrolling for a while. After a while, it just gets annoying. So we tried to display the text in visual form. Whether that was in our interactive timeline with the pop-ups, or the pictures, we tried to take different sections of our new created story. Instead of writing words, we tried to use visuals.”

For those who had time and wanted to know more about particular elements of the project, designers added “external options” such as links to outside sites or to other pages within the project. One group used large and colorful subheads because the information provided in the subheads alone could save users from an unwanted experience of beginning to read a section that might not interest them.

Maintain narrative flow

Participants in semi-structured individual interviews said they preferred stories where visual elements broke up longer passages of text. However, they did not want the visual elements to interfere with the flow of the narrative, and several skipped over opportunities to click on interactive elements or videos so they could continue reading. “I kind of wanted to read more of the article rather than clicking,” one participant said. “Usually that’s my style. I read the full entire article and click on links later just so I won’t get lost.” Other participants expressed similar views: “My instinct was to go for the read and mess with everything else later,” one stated. “I don’t feel like going to another page,” a third explained when asked why they didn’t click a link to an infographic.

Make mobile reading more enjoyable

In focus groups, participants found that reading long-form projects on mobile devices differed from reading them on laptops. Specifically, reading tends to be more difficult and less enjoyable on the cellphone versus on the laptop. The cellphone is convenient in that it allows one to access the story from nearly anywhere, such as in bed or while traveling. However, reading on the phone means the text needs to be bigger, which requires more bothersome scrolling.

In the paper-prototyping study, one group focused on relaying as much information as possible with as little text as possible. This is where some of the study’s findings become complex. Paper-prototyping participants, by and large, said that while they were interested in reading the long-form projects, they simply did not want to create a text-heavy mobile project. In some cases, participants wished not to diminish the value of the written word, but had a hard time justifying placing “too much text” on “tiny screens.” Instead, participants desired — and designed — projects that would have snappy subheads, interactive games and video.


Apps add an edge in mobile long-form journalism. Millennials found interactive applications that were well integrated within the narrative flow of long-form stories to be “cool” and “engaging.” However, millennials were turned off by technical glitches and interactive elements that removed them from the context of the story. 

Jacqueline Marino  
Research scholar

Susan Jacobson  
Research scholar

Robert Gutsche Jr.  
Research scholar


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